Unlikely Answers: At the Burning Bush with Durante, Mamie Smith, and Sherman Alexie

“Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust,” Sherman Alexie writes in a poem that finds Moses at the Burning Bush. Alexie reaches this mountaintop via a circuitous path that touches on roller coasters, obsessive worry about failing to turn off the stove, Jimmy Durante, Dante Alighieri, and another poet‘s obsession with the fact that “Dante” is, in reality, short for “Durante.” (More on Dante/Durante)

Do you think, after Moses talked to the Burning Bush, that he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the bush was still burning, and presented a clear and present danger? Do you think Moses hiked back up the mountain to make sure? If I claim that, in Hebrew, Moses is spelled Mos Eisley, will you look it up? Of course, you must. Without impossible questions and unlikely answers, faith is only dust.
— “Hell,” IN What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned
(Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2014), p.51

Of course, I looked it up.

'Star Wars' image (property of LucasFilms)
“Star Wars” image: Mos Eisley Cantina musicians (property of LucasFilms)

Wookieepedia explains that Mos Eisley (pronounced “Moss Ize-lee”) is an important location in the Star Wars universe: a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where wise visitors are cautious, it’s the site of the cantina (right) where Luke Skywalker first meets Han Solo and Chewbacca….Not, as this ignorant Star Trek fan guessed, some odd conflation of Mos Def and the Isley Brothers.

Perhaps Alexie is hinting at some kind of parallel between Luke Skywalker and Moses (spelled “מֹשֶׁה” [Moe-SHEH] in Hebrew, BTW, and thought to come from a verb meaning “to draw out”). If so, I know too little about Star Wars to catch it. Instead, my minimal wiki-knowledge sets me on a different path.

Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band (image: RedHotJazz.com)
Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band (RedHotJazz.com)
ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)
ABC-TV 1964 (Wikicommons)

I imagine Durante, in his jazz years and his later comic persona, with gigs at that alien cantina. Could Alexie have had this in mind, I wonder, when he came up with the inventive spelling for Moses?

Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds (via RedHotJazz)
Mamie Smith and the Jazz Hounds (RedHotJazz.com)

And then it’s Mamie Smith, backed by the Jazz Hounds, arriving in Mos Eisley. She launches into “Let’s Agree to Disagree,” a song co-written by Durante, telling the crowd — or maybe just one individual — at the cantina:

The honeymoon is through
There’s just one thing to do
Let’s agree to disagree.
…I’m on my way
wish you good luck.
Here’s why….

“Let’s Agree to Disagree” (Internet Archive)

Eventually — at this point mildly obsessed myself — I picture the biblical Moses and Zipporah on the road from Midian to Egypt (Exodus 4:20-26). I hear Zipporah, just before her 14-chapter disappearance from the Exodus tale (unexplained in the text), singing: “Good-bye. Here’s why.”

Impossible Questions

“Who am I…? Moses asks at the Burning Bush.
God’s answer: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:11-12).

Before long, God “sought to kill him” (Exodus 4:24).
Zipporah asks nothing. She acts.
God “lets go,” and Moses survives (Exodus 4:26).

Do we do better to hope God will stick with us or that God will let go?

Dante and Durante

“Dante” is, as noted above, a nickname for “Durante degli Alighieri,” author of The Inferno. (Wikipedia entry for the poet [c.1265-1321])

Wikipedia background on fellow Italian, James Francis Durante (February 10, 1893 – January 29, 1980). Biography and extensive professional credits at “Laughter Log.”

Possibly apropos, 1964 “Going UFOing” video —


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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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